Why do people climb mountains? Why do people do anything painful and arduous that they don't have to do? Meru, a documentary about three climbers' quest to be the first to conquer a 21,000-foot Himalayan peak, doesn't answer those questions definitively — just memorably. In interview footage, Jon Krakauer, the journalist and mountaineer who wrote the Everest chronicle Into Thin Air, considers why a climber might persist in the face of injury, danger and loss. Because, he says, "You'll go fucking crazy if you don't."
Meru is a portrait of obsession, which makes Krakauer (who also wrote Into the Wild) an appropriate Greek chorus for the piece. It's a portrait that could only be drawn by the obsessed themselves, though. Mount Meru, we quickly discover, is not a place where one can bring a camera crew. The footage we see of the ascent was captured by two of the climbers, National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk. (Chin later brought the footage to filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; now married, the two are credited as codirectors.) There are no dramatic re-creations in the film, just after-the-fact interviews that serve as narration and interpretation.
The cameras were among 200 pounds of gear that Chin, Ozturk and Conrad Anker had to lug up 4,000 feet just to reach their real challenge: a 1,500-foot sheet of steep, smooth granite called the Shark's Fin.
How do you camp when ascending a "big wall" with no solid footholds, let alone ledges? In a "portaledge" that dangles off the side of the mountain. Supplies, too, hang in midair. The climbers' ability to cling to this vertiginous surface — which, to make things worse, can be as fragile as a "house of cards," Chin notes — is a bigger marvel than any special effect. Their successful documentation of the process is a bigger one still.
But perhaps the greatest marvel is their refusal to give up. We witness Anker, Chin and Ozturk's first attempt at Meru, in 2008; having been snowed in and frostbitten, they turn back 100 meters from the summit. Dramatic logic tells us that their second attempt, in 2011, will triumph. Even so, the filmmakers build suspense with their account of the interval between the two climbs, which turns out to be eventful — so disastrously eventful, in fact, that the second expedition begins to look like a quixotic endeavor.
Along the way, the three men emerge as compelling personalities. The film delves into the personal history of Anker, who's been climbing for decades and lost both his mentor and his longtime climbing partner to the sport. On the other end of the generational spectrum stands Ozturk, a laid-back artist whom Chin and Anker first encountered through YouTube videos of his death-defying free climbs.
If Meru were a Hollywood drama, Anker would probably be portrayed as the Captain Ahab type, Chin as his steady lieutenant and Ozturk as the reckless young hothead. But it's not a drama, and the men don't play those archetypal roles.
Instead, what we learn from their interactions is that no one can afford drama on a sheer vertical ascent. The 2011 expedition entailed a new risk factor — one so significant that even the risk-prone Krakauer has just one knee-jerk reaction: "No!" But once that expedition is under way, we see no arguments or second-guessing — who has the energy? The confrontation of human bodies, the altitude and the mountain is conflict enough.
Whatever one thinks of such dangerous endeavors, Meru is an instructive reminder of just how far Hollywood heroism, with its CG enhancements, has veered from the real limits and capacities of the human body. Watching these three men fight for every foot of altitude is far more exhausting than seeing a superhero defy gravity — and far more inspiring.